Iran, Al Qaeda, and the deal Obama should offer for unfreezing assets

While the Obama administration is admirably devoting resources toward averting the “known unknown” of Iranian foreign statecraft being formulated by an apocalyptic-minded, radical religious ideologue with a nuclear arsenal at his disposal, a decades-old destructive feature of Tehran’s foreign policy continues to suffer more than just benign neglect: The Islamic Republic’s myriad forms of support for militant Islamist elements designated terrorists by not just the US, but also a majority of developed nations. Among them is al-Qaeda — there’s no question about it.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently testified that al-Qaeda poses no less significant a threat to U.S. interests today than a decade ago. Yet demands from the administration that could serve to disrupt the so-called “secret deal,” as the Treasury Department put it in July 2011, between top Iranian officials and senior al-Qaeda leaders have not been forthcoming.

Just this month Treasury officials shared with the press that the Iranians have allowed a top al-Qaeda fundraiser, Yasin al-Suri, to continue operating inside Iran. Just this month Treasury announced the designation of another “key Iran-based al-Qaeda facilitator who supports al-Qaeda’s vital facilitation network in Iran, that operates there with the knowledge of Iranian authorities.” As noted by the Treasury Department, the al-Qaeda members and facilitators Iran is allowing to operate within its borders are playing important roles funneling people and money to al-Qaeda’s newest franchise, Jabhat al-Nusrah.

Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusrah — a Sunni insurgent group — is busy conducting attacks against both the Iranian regime’s top regional ally, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and Tehran’s chief terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. But more important, according to America’s top intelligence official, Jabhat al-Nusrah is preparing jihadis to attack the U.S.

As observed by Dipak K. Gupta in a June 2011 submission to the Journal of American History, contributors to the field of terrorism studies “often explicitly aim to influence public policies.” Regrettably, no contributors to this field have managed to spark activity on the foreign policy-making front sufficient to deter Iran from using terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy.

With respect to Iran’s history as a state sponsor of terrorism there is no shortage of low-hanging fruit any given member of Congress could use as the basis for crafting bills that seek to empower America’s Special Operations community to engage in more robust efforts to disrupt and deter such behavior. As lamented in 2011 by terrorism expert David C. Rapoport, Americans’ “indifference to history” has had a damaging impact on our ability to learn from past acts of terrorism — perhaps more appropriately, inaction in the case of Iran-backed terrorism — in order to improve America’s counterterrorism posture.

Still, the chorus of concerns about the Obama administration’s “policy entrepreneurship” on the Iran front flowing from the offices of Congressional Democrats and Republicans alike, can only mean Americans do not think fondly of the regime in control of Iran, and probably don’t favor reducing pressures placed on it by their government. In other words, despite such an “indifference to history,” Americans haven’t forgotten about the embassy hostage crisis (thanks in no small part to Hollywood), attacks in Beirut that claimed the lives of hundreds of U.S. servicemen, and so on.

Admittedly, late in April 2011 I, too, had the above aim cited by Gupta in mind when I presented the 100 or so members of Congress involved with Congress’s official think tank on terror-related concerns, the now moribund Congressional Anti-Terrorism Caucus (ATC), a report on this issue. Titled “The al-Qa’ida-Qods Force Nexus,” the report received a great deal of interest among policymakers on the Hill. One of them, Rep. Jeff Duncan, a member of the both the House Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security committees, inserted the report into the Congressional Record while then Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was visiting New York in September 2011. Shortly thereafter Rep. Duncan’s co-authored the Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012. (My report was included among the short list of source documents distributed to members of the House and Senate by the bill’s authors.)